It was dark outside. I was stiff from the flight, tremblingly hungry, and confused by this unexpected taxi ride. When I booked my return flight from Kuala Lumpur to London, I was at a desk in a crowded call centre, trying to look like I was working. I misread the flight times, never noticing the length of the stopover in Sri Lanka.
Twelve hours. What was I going to do in Colombo's empty airport for twelve hours, my book already finished, my uncharged I-pod a useless white slab? And then, out of the blue, a hotel. A night in a hotel was included with my flights. A meal and a bed! I sent a prayer of thanks to whatever god was smiling at me.
As it turned out, they all were. Out the window, roadside shrines loomed from the darkness every few moments, gaudy and spotlit, or swimming in shivering candlelight. Deities from all faiths sharing space among hedgerows. A stone Christ gazed down with sad, unseeing eyes. An elephant head drowning in garlands of pink and yellow flowers: Ganesh. In the dark, the weeping Virgin Marys and hysterical Buddhas took on a sinister gleam under the flickering lights, somehow menacing.
My fellow passenger introduced himself, but I was too tired to take note of his name, too bewildered by the rush with which I'd moved from the sticky heat of Kuala Lumpur to this whirlwind taxi ride, haunted by leering deities.
He was a Malaysian business man; overweight, suited, sweaty. His shining bald head was skirted by a few strands of wiry black hair, grey at the temples. His face was unpleasantly plump, the lower rims of his glasses resting on bulbous cheeks. I took a dislike to him, answering his questions about my trip curtly. Didn't he know I was overtired? That I had just left my boyfriend in Malaysia and wouldn't see him again for two months. That I didn't want to be spending a night in Sri Lanka, that I just wanted to be back home in drizzly England, sulking and crying in my own bed.
A mirage emerged from the darkness, a floodlit hotel behind a flurry of branches. A soft spoken receptionist saw the hunger in my pale face and led me straight to the dining room. The business man and myself were the only diners, but the food was still hot and fresh, curry after curry with fragrant rice and sticky, fried vegetables. I flopped into a chair and ordered a coke. The waiter who brought it out stayed, asking me the same questions I'd already grumpily answered in the taxi. Where had I come from? Where was I going? Why was I travelling alone?
Another waiter joined, then one of the chefs. They were friendly, and as I filled the burning hole in my stomach I began to warm up. They told me about the tsunami, showed me how high up the walls the water had come. They recommended dishes and watched me eat, checking I was enjoying everything.
The next morning, at breakfast, it was the same. The restaurant was busier, filled with middle aged, English tourists; women with pearl earrings and portly, red faced men in polo shirts. They frowned at my dirty travelling clothes and shabby Converse. In spite of guests, my waiter friends all stopped by for a chat. In the daylight, they showed me which parts of the hotel had been destroyed and rebuilt. The main middle section of the hotel had been washed away by the tsunami, they had replaced it with a terrace outside the restaurant, and a garden. I asked how far it was to the sea.
Just at the bottom of the garden. Perfect. Sitting on the slither of beach, rough sand like grit underfoot, I felt conflicted between the grumpiness left over from yesterday, and the sense of calm that had settled over me. I gazed miserably at the horizon and wondered where the hell I was. Was I looking toward home, or towards the boy I had just left? I missed both terribly and wanted to be anywhere but this dirty scrap of beach.
In the sunlight, the deities in their pointy roofed shrines looked more gentle, smiling sweetly at me from the roadside. I settled back in the taxi and thought about how there is still magic to be found, even in the places you never wanted to be.